"Nothing in the world could make human life happier than to greatly increase the number of strong families," according to David R. Mace (1985). Family strengths are those relationship qualities that contribute to the emotional health and well-being of the family. Families who define themselves as strong commonly say they love each other, find life together satisfying, and live in happiness and harmony with each other.
Professionals who study families do so for many reasons. Perhaps the most important reason is to help us learn how to get along better with each other in what has been described as our basic social institution and our most intimate environment.
Much of the research on families in the twentieth century focused on family problems in an effort to answer the question, "Why do families fail?" From a family strengths perspective, it is important to also look at families who are doing well in life, and find answers to the question, "How do families succeed?"
Mace was one of the founders of the marriage enrichment movement in Great Britain and the United States. He believed that the study of successful families could yield important knowledge in the quest to help make human life happier by increasing the number of strong families in the world. After researchers have identified the qualities that make families strong, educators can then proceed to develop educational programs for teaching and learning about family strengths. Family therapists can create therapeutic intervention strategies so that family members can develop strengths in their relationships with each other. Family policy makers can design government policies and programs that enhance family well-being rather than diminish it. And family members themselves can put their own very personal approaches to building family strengths in practice in their daily lives together.
Over the years researchers, clinicians, and laypersons have used many different terms to describe families who are doing well together in life: strong families, emotionally healthy families, balanced families, happy families, families with strengths, successful families, optimally functioning families, good families, resilient families, harmonious families, and others. Though the terminology used may differ, the basic notion is that these families believe they are functioning well together, and are satisfied with their relationships with each other.
Researchers studying strong families commonly adopt both "insider" and "outsider" perspectives for their studies. Families who believe they are doing well (the "insiders") are asked to volunteer for a study which measures their strengths; researchers (the "outsiders"), after careful assessment of the family through the process of interviews, observations, and questionnaire data, come to their own conclusions about the family's strengths. Both perspectives are derived from essentially subjective processes.
The Family Strengths Perspective
This is not a theory or conceptual framework, which would imply a set of hypotheses which can be precisely tested through scientific research. The family strengths perspective is a positive, optimistic world-view or orientation toward life and families, grounded in research with more than 21,000 family members in twenty-seven countries. It does not ignore problems, but relegates problems to their proper place in life: as vehicles for testing our capacities as families and reaffirming our connection with each other.
Researchers looking at families from a strengths perspective have developed a number of propositions derived from their work with families that they believe merit serious consideration:
- All families have strengths. All families have challenges and all families have areas of potential growth.
- If one looks only for problems in a family, one will see only problems. If one also looks for strengths, one will find strengths.
- It's not about structure, it's about function. When talking about strong families, it is common to make the mistake of focusing on external family structure rather than internal family functioning. But, there are strong single-parent families, strong stepfamilies, strong nuclear families, strong extended families, strong families with gay and lesbian members, strong two-parent families. For every family structure in the world, there are countless representative strong families. Likewise, every type of family structure in the world also has many families that are not functioning well. Simply knowing the type of family does not tell one anything about the strength of the family.
- If you grew up in a strong family as a child, it will probably be easier for you to create a strong family of your own as an adult. However, it's also possible to do so if you grew up in a seriously troubled family.
- Strengths develop over time. When couples start out in life together, they tend to have considerable difficulty adjusting to each other, and these difficulties are predictable. Adjusting to each other is not an easy task, but many couples who start out shaky end up creating healthy, happy families.
- Strengths are tested through normative developmental transitions. For example, couples commonly face many challenges when their children reach adolescence and young
adulthood. These transitions are predictable, and once the period has passed and the younger generation has gained relative independence from the parents, the family settles back into a more emotionally connected and comfortable mode.
table 1Qualities of strong families appreciation and affection commitment caring for each other trust friendship honesty respect for individuality dependability playfulness faithfulness humor sharing positive communication time together sharing feelings quality time in great quantity giving compliments good things take time avoiding blame enjoying each other's company being able to compromise simple good times agreeing to disagree sharing fun times spiritual well-being the ability to cope with stress and crisis hope adaptability faith seeing crises as challenges and opportunities compassion shared ethical values growing through crises together oneness with humankind openness to change resilience
- Good things take time. A family's strengths are tested by everyday stressors and also by the significant crises that all families face sooner or later. It takes several years before for many couples and families to believe they have become a strong family, but they know this because they have been tested by the significant challenging events that life inevitably brings.
- Crises can tear families apart. Crises can also make family relationships stronger. Families in crisis sometimes forget their strengths, and need to remind themselves.
- A family's strengths are the foundation for growth and positive change. Families become stronger by capitalizing on their strengths.
- Most families in the world have considerable strength. Human beings would not have lasted across countless generations without these qualities. There are many more strong families in the world than families who are deeply troubled. As a global human community, we cannot afford to forget this.
- Families are about strong emotion. If family strengths could be reduced to one single quality, it would be the positive emotional connection and sense of belonging with each other. When this emotional bond is present, the family can endure most any hardship.
The Qualities of Strong Families
A number of different conceptions of family strengths, positive family traits, or models of normal family functioning have been proposed (Beavers and Hampson 1990; Curran 1983; Epstein et al. 1993; Krysan, Moore, and Zill 1990; Olson 1996; Stinnett and DeFrain 1985; Stinnett and Sauer 1977). Each model is unique, and this derives from the fact that family strengths and other positive family interaction models are conceptual frameworks. Though the models are derived from observations of real families around the world, the models are subjective constructions based on the perceptions of the researchers and family members. Nevertheless, it is important to point out that the similarities among models of family strengths are more apparent than the differences (Krysan, Moore, and Zill 1990; Olson and DeFrain 2000).
In the same vein, researchers around the world have found remarkable similarities in families in different cultures. Families that describe themselves as strong commonly share a number of broad qualities or traits. What is significant is not how different strong families are in the global community, but how similar they tend to be. In short, people are people, and families are families (Casas et al. 1984; DeFrain, DeFrain, and Lepard 1994; Geggie et al. 2000; Xie et al. 1996).
The Family Strengths Model proposes six clusters of qualities that describe strong families (Stinnett and DeFrain 1985; DeFrain 1999):
- Appreciation and affection. People in strong families deeply care for one another, and they let each other know this on a regular basis. They are not afraid to express their love.
- Commitment. Members of strong families are dedicated to one another's well-being, investing time and energy in family activities and not letting their work or other priorities take too much time away from family interaction.
- Positive communication. Successful families are often task-oriented in their communication, identifying problems and discussing how to solve them together. Perhaps even more important than this, however, is that strong families spend time talking with and listening to one another just to stay connected. Some of the most important talk occurs when no one is working at connection: open-ended, rambling conversations can reveal important information which helps smooth out the bumps of family life.
- Enjoyable time together. One study of 1,500 schoolchildren asked, "What do you think makes a happy family?" Few replied that money, cars, fancy homes, television sets, or Disney World made a happy family. Most children said that a happy family is one that does things together, and that genuinely enjoys the times family members share with each other.
- Spiritual well-being. Perhaps the most controversial finding of the family strengths researchers is the importance of religion or spirituality in strong families. We use the phrase spiritual well-being to describe this concept to indicate that it can include organized religion, but not necessarily. People in strong families describe this concept in a variety of ways: some talk about faith in God, hope, or a sense of optimism in life; some say they feel a oneness with the world. Others talk about their families in almost religious terms, describing the love they feel for one another with a great deal of reverence. Others express these kinds of feelings in terms of ethical values and commitment to important causes. Spiritual well-being can be seen as the caring center within each individual that promotes sharing, love, and compassion. It is a feeling or force that helps people transcend themselves and their dayto-day stressors, and focus on that which is sacred to them in life.
- Successful management of stress and crisis. Strong families are not immune to stress and crisis, but they are not as crisis-prone as troubled families tend to be. Rather, they possess the ability to manage both daily stressors and difficult life crises creatively and effectively. They know how to prevent trouble before it happens, and how to work together to meet the inevitable challenges when they occur. (See Figure 1.)
All of the family strengths are interconnected, and are impossible to separate. What unites the strengths is that each is founded upon a sense of positive emotional connection. People in strong families feel good about each other and genuinely care for each other's well-being.
Family Strengths and Universal Values
Individuals and families are all unique, and yet there is an apparent paradox: human beings are all also quite similar. Countless people from countless walks of life—novelists, poets, sociologists, anthropologists, singers and songwriters, economists, psychologists, and educators—have remarked upon this.
In the 1930s, cultural anthropologists assumed that every culture was unique. However, over several decades sociologist George Homans (1974) amassed empirical data that contradicted this belief in cultural uniqueness, arguing that certain societal institutions appear in every culture because of the universality of human nature.
Anthropologist Colin Turnbull (1983) devoted his life to studying the nature of human cultures around the world and challenged age-old Western assumptions about differences between so-called "primitive" societies and "modern" societies. Turnbull concluded from his work among the Mbuti of Zaire, the Hindus of Banaras, and middle-class Westerners that the experiences of love, work, loneliness, growing up, and growing old are universal. He concluded that behind all the different rites, customs, and religions, people in various cultures live in the same eternal, immutable human cycle, governed by the same laws.
Kenneth Boulding (1985), an economist, philosopher, and general systems theorist, wrote that human betterment is the end toward which people, individually and collectively, should strive. Betterment is an increase in the "ultimate good." Four great virtues make up this ultimate good: (1) economic adequacy—wealth in contrast to poverty; nourishment rather than starvation; adequate housing, clothing, health care, and other essentials of life; (2) justice—in contrast to injustice; equality rather than inequality in access to work, education, and health; (3) freedom—in contrast to coercion and confinement; and (4) peacefulness— in contrast to warfare and strife. Boulding proposed that these great virtues may be considered universal values.
Figure 2 combines Boulding's universal values with the Family Strengths Model. From a global perspective, the ultimate good and the strengths that create human happiness in the most intimate institution, the family, are remarkably similar. The human tendency to focus on differences rather than similarities can be divisive and lead to devastating strife. A broader, global perspective emphasizes our common humanity as "citizens of the world." In the words of novelist James A. Michener (1991, p. 249), "We are all brothers [and sisters]. We all face the same problems and find the same satisfactions. We are united in one great band. I am one with all of them, in all lands, in all climates, in all conditions. Since we brothers [and sisters] occupy the entire earth, the world is our home."
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john defrain nick stinnett